Redistricting error keeps Arkansas legislature in session

Reuters News
Posted: Apr 12, 2011 8:07 PM
Redistricting error keeps Arkansas legislature in session

By Suzi Parker

LITTLE ROCK, Ark (Reuters) - The Arkansas House of Representatives has left two precincts unattached to their newly drawn congressional districts, a mistake that is keeping the state legislature in session for an extra day.

"Apparently, when extracting the map data to statute form, two precincts were overlooked," said Bill Stovall, chief of staff for the House of Representatives.

"The error left a portion of Jefferson County, which was to be in the First District according to the map, landlocked in the Fourth District."

The legislature had been set to adjourn Tuesday after more than three months in session. For the last two weeks, it has focused on congressional redistricting and often faced impasses and partisan fighting over how to redraw Arkansas' four congressional districts.

On Monday, the House of Representatives considered and approved another map.

But a local political blogger, Jason Tolbert, caught a technical error in the new plan, in which two precincts in southern Arkansas were left unattached to their new districts. That could have left the state open to a lawsuit if it was not corrected.

Stovall said that mistakes happen when dealing with "massive data and information in a fast paced environment."

The Arkansas constitution does not allow for a bill to be passed in one day.

"This process serves itself well, in that the inability to pass a bill in one day allows for these errors to be corrected," Stovall said.

In the past, Arkansas has not had major problems with redistricting. This year, there are more Republicans in the legislature than at any point in the modern era. Stovall said that the problems didn't necessarily have anything to do with partisan politics.

"The growth in Arkansas, and not being awarded a fifth congressional seat, certainly contributed to part of the issue," Stovall said. "Drawing districts with 720,000 people, rather than approximately 575,000 people causes numerous problems."

As the new map stands, five counties are being split. The Fort Smith metro area in western Arkansas, which has a population of 86,000, will also be divided between two districts.

Some legislators are not happy with the bill, but the legislature must pass it or face federal intervention.

"There are Democrats and Republicans who like the map, there are Democrats and Republicans who don't like the map," House Speaker Robert Moore said on the House floor. "We're not going to have a perfect map."

The new districts will impact 2012 congressional races. Currently, three Republicans and one Democrat represent Arkansas in the House of Representatives.

The legislature reconvenes on Wednesday to pass the redistricting plan, which would then go to Governor Mike Beebe's desk. Beebe has said he will sign the bill.

(Editing by Corrie MacLaggan and Jerry Norton)